Lebanon's Presidential Crisis: A Cycle of Political & Economic Chaos
By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer
The President Steps Down
Michel Aoun, the eighty-nine year old president of Lebanon recently stepped down without a successor this week amid the country’s most dire economic crisis in years. Many Lebanese and international observers are concerned about the inevitable power vacuum as the parliament and cabinet scramble to find Lebanon’s next president. Aoun’s successor will inherit an economy with a GDP which has fallen at rates comparable to war torn states, according to World Bank statistics. The question must be asked whether or not the current Lebanese political system, initially designed to accommodate a multi-faith society, can withstand the increasingly concerning political and economic turmoil the country is facing.
A System in Crisis
Lebanon, one of the most culturally vibrant countries in the Middle East, is also one of the most religiously diverse countries in the Arab World. The population consists of Sunni, Shia, Maronite Christians, and Druze. Since the foundation of the modern Lebanese state following the end of the French Mandate, striking a delicate balance to accommodate all religious and ethnic minorities has been a challenge. Although intended to achieve fair representation for all, the current Lebanese political model has yielded a sectarian and fractured government which operates using a system of clientelism. Clientelism is defined as a system of political patronage or quid- pro-quo interactions between elected officials and the people which ultimately leads to public officials buying votes from their targeted demographics. This can be through understandings involving the exchange of goods and services, and also through less subtle financial transactions.
The concept of identity is at the heart of Lebanon’s foundation but it is also proving to be its downfall and weakness. Identity politics based on sectarian divisions drive the transactional relationship between the state and the people. As a result, corruption, mismanagement, and political gridlock abound. Many politicians in Lebanon are elected based on the promise of quid-pro-quo arrangements with their own sect or party supporters rather than on merit or ideas to tackle the issues facing the Lebanese people.
Who is Michel Aoun?
In Lebanon, the office of the President must be held by a Maronite Christian, whilst the offices of the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament are held by a Sunni and Shia Muslim respectively. For months, Michel Aoun and his team warned that a constitutional crisis was imminent if a replacement was not selected before the end of his presidential term. In Lebanon, the presidential office consists of six year terms which may not be repeated. Fast forward to this week, Aoun’s time is at an end and Lebanon’s next president is still unknown.
Michel Aoun is a polarizing figure. He is largely supported by Christians who view him as a defender of their rights and interests since his days as Commander of the Armed Forces during the Lebanese Civil War. In 2005, he founded the Free Patriotic Movement Party (FPM). The FPM platforms itself as being pro-civil state, pro- LGBTQ rights, and for its anti-refugee stance. His opponents criticize him for what they view as inaction in regards to Lebanon’s deteriorating economy and for his relationship with Hezbollah. Some of his critics also claim he neglected to act on information regarding the storage of stockpiles of ammonium nitrate. These stockpiles ultimately caused the 2020 Beirut port explosion resulting in 218 deaths, 300,000 left homeless, and an estimated $15 billion in property damage.
In his last speech at the presidential palace Aoun addressed the 2020 blast stating that politicians prevented a complete investigation into the incident. He also told journalists that his office did not possess the appropriate powers to address Lebanon’s economic situation. Finally, Aoun condemned the mismanaged Lebanese banks which have been withholding depositors access to their savings for months. “I leave a country that is robbed,” he said.
Whilst the economic and political woes of Lebanon pre-date Aoun’s administration, 80% of the Lebanese population are now classified as living in poverty according to international standards.
Gridlock Threatening Democracy
Interestingly enough, Michel Aoun was elected in 2016 after over 2 years of gripping power vacuum. The Lebanese parliament tried and failed a total of 45 times to fill the presidential office until they finally settled on Aoun on October 31, 2016. Aoun’s predecessor, Michel Suleiman also faced an immensely divided government with parties and factions only agreeing to elect him president after tense negotiations in Qatar. In short, the current political situation in Lebanon is not the first time that gridlock has threatened the efficacy of democracy. Lebanon has functioned without a head of state before. However, this is the first time Lebanon will have no head of state and have a cabinet which is only operating in a caretaker capacity. So, what exactly does that mean?
Lebanon held parliamentary elections in May and with the new government there should also be a new cabinet. In situations like this the old cabinet stays on in what is referred to as a caretaker capacity until the new cabinet can take over. After the president forms the cabinet, the cabinet must receive a 51 % approval vote from the Parliament in order to be instituted. The cabinet is responsible for executive decisions, a provision put in place so that the president does not possess too much power. The president’s role is to sign bills into law as well as to appoint the prime minister and approve the cabinet. Appointments of the prime minister and the cabinet must then be voted on by the Parliament in order to be valid.
The parliament is comprised of representatives which are elected based on specified quotas in order to fairly represent Lebanon’s religious sects. However, the over-emphasis on divisive sectarian politics and inability to tackle widespread corruption has created a system of government which inhibits an organic and functional democratic process. Over the last several months, the gridlock in parliament has prevented Lebanon from filling the executive role. Lebanon has faced gridlock before but they have never faced having no president and having a cabinet that can only operate as caretakers at the same time. Many fear this will greatly impede efforts to combat the mounting economic crisis in Lebanon. Parliament is set to meet again this Thursday.
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